Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why I Use the Lectionary

When I teach preaching I always encourage my students to use the Common Lectionary (in one of its many variations) in planning their preaching schedules. Being a Baptist and, therefore, firmly ensconced within the free church tradition, my predilection for a worship instrument that constrains the preacher may require, in the minds of some, an explanation.

First, a word about preaching in general. I often get questions from preachers about which “kind” of preaching I prefer. I presume they mean by that one of the many monikers used to distinguish various types of contemporary preaching, such as expository, narrative, inductive, confessional, etc. However, these tend to focus more on the form than the content of preaching, the “vehicle” rather than the “freight.” Irrespective of the style one employs, if one’s preaching at the end of the day is not, in its truest sense, “biblical,” then one is not preaching; one is merely giving a speech. What distinguishes a sermon from a speech is the biblical text and the way it is employed in the sermon.

By my way of thinking, therefore, there are only two approaches to preaching: topical or textual. Either you start with a topic and then choose a text that "supports" what you've already decided you're going to say anyway; or you start with a text and then let the text dictate your topic. I do the latter for reasons that should be obvious, with a moment's reflection. But let me state them nonetheless.

There are five reasons, chiefly, why I use the Lectionary when planning my own preaching.

  • The Lectionary alleviates the preacher’s perpetual pressure of wondering what to preach on Sunday. It’s comforting and reassuring to know on Monday that my text for Sunday is already selected and waiting for me. I need only settle in for my weekly journey into and out of the text listening for a word from God to share with His people.
  • “To Lectionary or Not To Lectionary” is not the question anyway. Every preacher will utilize some sort of lectionary. The only choice is whether to use a lectionary of one’s own devising, or one which the church has shaped and honed for centuries. I often tell my preaching students: “Just look through your sermon file for the past ten years, and you’ll discover the shape of your lectionary.” I prefer to use the one which the church, in its collective wisdom, has fashioned through centuries of experience with corporate worship.
  • The Lectionary forces me to preach the whole Bible, and not just the parts I happen to like. That is to say, the Lectionary is based on the entire canon of the Scriptures, and not on some truncated, eviscerated canon comprised exclusively of my “pet passages.” On more than one occasion, I have climbed into the pulpit and begun my sermon with the words: “I would not have preached this sermon today had the Lectionary not made me.”
  • The Lectionary is based on the Christian calendar and the church year. I like that. Of course, that’s not the only option for the preacher. There are multiple “calendars” all vying to dictate the preacher’s choices. For example, culture’s calendar will tell you that last Sunday was “Memorial Sunday” rather than “Trinity Sunday.” The denomination also has its “calendar” and will, if you let it, dictate what you call a given Sunday and what you preach – “Right to Life Sunday” or “Religious Liberty Sunday” or “Denominational Headquarters Needs a New Roof Sunday.” Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the point. The church calendar, on the other hand, is based on the Gospel (now, there’s a novel idea!) so that over the course of the year the preacher preaches the Gospel Story from Christ’s Coming (Advent) to Christ’s Coming (Christ the King Sunday). I like that.
  • The Lectionary provides a larger perspective when, on occasion, a sermon seems mordant or harsh. When people tell me that the message of a particular sermon seemed to them harsh or difficult or judgmental, I typically remind them: “Please remember that this is but one word from God in an ongoing conversation. I have preached other words; I will preach other words. But this is one word which the church, in its wisdom, thought we needed to hear. Be patient. Judgment this week, grace the next. It is the way of things with the God of this Book. Besides, I do not attempt to preach all of the Christian faith in every single sermon, for which we shall both be grateful.”

To be sure, the Lectionary isn’t failsafe or foolproof. There are some Sundays when I scratch my head and ask: “Why did they pick these texts?” And there are some preachers for whom even having a text in advance is no necessary advantage! But that said, using the Lectionary helps me keep my preaching biblical so that even when I mess up, I mess up about much more important issues than I would if left to my own devices or choices.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dr. Stacy -

Greetings from a fellow North Carolinian. I'm in Randolph County myself, but my girlfriend is from the Triangle.

I enjoyed your thoughts on the Lectionary; I share most of them. Recently, though, I've felt a tug to move away from it occassionally - especially during the upcoming 'ordinary time.' Adam Hamilton makes a pretty good argument in "Unleashing the Word" for series preaching that is, of course, topical. I think he has a point. I'm not sure in a three year cycle the lectionary will hit everything that a given congregation might need to hear. I'm also expirementing with lectionary-based series, which give me a sense of moving somewhere over a period of weeks instead of just "Monday morning, which text am I picking today?"

At at any rate, I was unaware of Baptists who use the lectionary. I suppose that makes it difficult to get a salvation message for the obligatory altar call every Sunday?